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New Democracy (ND), the centre-right party founded currently led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis won the twin electoral contest of May/June 2023 in Greece with a landslide. The victory was comprehensive both in terms of the votes received—over 40 per cent of those who cast their vote (abstention was over 45 per cent)—and because of the near collapse of Syriza (17.83 per cent) and the weak recovery of the other centre-left party, PASOK (11.46 per cent).
Meanwhile, on the far right, three ultra-conservative parties entered parliament: Niki (Victory) is a socially conservative party with many references to Christian orthodox religion; Hellenic Solution is a nationalist party with an anti-migration agenda; and the Spartans, a rather xenophobic and extreme right-wing militant formation, whose real leader, a former member of Golden Dawn, is in prison.
What do these results tell us? What are the elements of change since the election of 2019? Why did Syriza experience such a dramatic fall, failing to take advantage of several governmental blunders?
The overall rise of the centre right and the far right, as well as the concomitant decline of the centre left is bound up with two interconnected factors: the elimination of crisis conditions that paved the ground for the emergence of Syriza as the main radical anti-austerity force in Greek society and politics; and the lack of a strategic opposition and programmatic alternative on behalf of both Syriza and PASOK during the entire period that ND was in office (2019–2023). At the same time, as we shall see, the management of governmental power by the ND was quite competent, especially during the pandemic and the geopolitical crisis with Turkey.
The rise and fall of Syriza
The radicalisation of Greek society and politics from 2010-2015 was the result of a severe debt crisis. The bailout agreements signed by various centrist coalition governments of PASOK and ND before the advent of Syriza in office (January 2015), transferred the mass of private debt onto public institutions, making the Greek taxpayer responsible for its repayment. This entailed harsh austerity measures. Syriza rose to prominence thanks to popular discontent among the middle and lower middle classes.
On 5 July 2015 Syriza held a referendum on whether Greece should accept austerity by taking a third, even harsher bailout package. A majority of 62 per cent voted ‘No’ to austerity. Syriza overturned the referendum result. Aiming to legitimise this, they called for a new election in September 2015, which it won with just over 35 per cent of the vote.
The divorce of Syriza from working class interests led the party to the electoral defeat of 2019. However, while in opposition, Syriza failed to embed itself in civil society and act as a mass class organiser providing the basis for an alternative political programme, and this proved costly. The party has now been in opposition for four years (2019–23).
The centre-right government and the pandemic (2019–2023)
During its period in government, Syriza boasted that it took Greece out of the surveillance framework of the bailout agreements, bringing the country back to international (borrowing) markets. Although this is true, the legal obligation of Greece to produce primary surpluses for many years afterwards remained in place.
The government managed the period of the pandemic quite well. Unemployment in Greece was, to a certain degree, contained: it only increased by 1.8 per cent to 18.3 per cent in 2021, while on the eve of the 2023 elections it went down to below 11 per cent. This is a significant achievement given the state of finances of the country and the significant loss of income from tourism. Although the framework of its policy remained faithful to neoliberalism, the centre right managed to contain inequalities and even the number of deaths caused by the pandemic—Greece holds the 23rd position in Europe with 503 deaths per 1 million people.
The pandemic also created social and working conditions and needs that pushed the centre right to invest in modernising the state's bureaucratic machine, which undoubtedly were seen in a positive light by the electorate.
The government was also competent in its management of the geopolitical crisis with Turkey over the issues of illegal migrants and maritime borders. The Greek right-wing government presented itself as the upholder of international and European law in all bilateral issues with Turkey. In addition, upon the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the Greek government sided immediately with the West. For the Greek middle classes, this provided an increased sense of security, reinforcing the centre right's credentials without meaningful and realistic opposition to government policy.
The rise of the extreme right: responsibilities of the centre left and centre right
Of previously insignificant influence, the Spartans rose to prominence just three weeks before the ballot of 25 June 2023, when the imprisoned founding leader of Hellenes and former Golden Dawn MP, Ilias Kassidiaris, instructed his followers to vote for them. They received 4.64 per cent of the vote.
Kassidiaris appears solid, radical and pro-working class at a moment when both the left and the right seem to have embraced discourses about rights and individual freedoms relinquishing class and class interests. Was his exclusion the right decision? In Germany, the AfD, which has surpassed the social democrats in the polls, remains a legal political force, and so too is the pro-Franco Vox in Spain. It shows the ND's political and ideological impotence in dealing with him. Has he been turned into a political hero?
Both Syriza and PASOK, however, together with the centre right, are responsible for opening up a massive political space for the development of the extreme right, whose political—though not coercive—containment in the near future should become the chief priority for all democratic forces in Greece.